quinta-feira, abril 26, 2018

Dumbed-Down-Science Squared: "String Theory for Dummies" by Andrew Zimmerman Jones

My criticism of these kind of books, from what I have read from other stuff, is that the writers tend to spout all the standard or classic theories as tablets of stone and rarely introduce new ideas (presentation-wise). Imagine you were able to generate a video clip of a science book where a whole gallery of core concepts flashed by in say 60 minutes. Are we sure we’d be able to learn something from the process? Is it likely that some of the images would leave a deep impression on you? My two cents: in fact, you are seeing it, but not understanding it. It is probably similar with these dummy series of books; you get an impression, maybe even learn something, but it is unlikely to have a significant effect on your understanding of the subject at hand. I suppose it depends on the reason one attempts the book in the first place. Snobbery? (Yes, of course I have read a String Theory book.) To enter a pub quiz? (Answer to Q69: The twin at the edge of the galaxy ages more quickly.) To search for understanding about how and why the world works as it does, and how we came to understand it? (Say what?) In this age of everything-available-at-your-fingertips, aren't we all a little guilty of wanting answers to pub quiz questions without doing the work of understanding how the answer was derived? I had a physics teacher at college who kept insisting for me to "show my working". Seeking facts without understanding limits our horizons; reduces us to consumers of other people's work; makes us lazy; leads eventually to the (sorry, folks) copy-and-paste unchecked stories about the EU, the bite-size propaganda of referendum campaigns, the swallowing hook-line-and-sinker of stories that serve as confirmation bias, the decrying of experts simply because they are experts, the loss of critical reading skills.

Which is where we are today.

Whether the writer is that narrow in his views could be just that is what the reader wants and have dumbed down the material so as not to lose his audience. I wish we could have some of the Horizon programs of years ago when if you weren't capable of understanding them it was tough, but everything on TV is dumbed down now. Just a couple of hours a week on one channel on stuff you really have to struggle to get your mind around is all I am asking for.

I am sometimes embarrassed to hear scientists (who really should know better) claiming that they have "objective" knowledge of the universe. Luckily guys like Smolin, having pondered these matters as scientific theorists, come out the other side all philosophical and talk of the universe inventing itself. Which suddenly freaks out all us bong-smokers, even though if we'd been paying attention the Buddha, Berkeley, Hume, Kant and co have been saying this for centuries...It seems we agree on the benefits of bong smoking on metaphysics. Sometimes in my hazier moments I'm convinced we're all the godhead reflecting in infinite mirrors and if you disagree then that's fine because I'm sure I'll agree with you when I am you... or something like that.

Sages peer into the riddles of matter and consciousness, hoping to explain them. So what is 'explain'? Ah, but that's the toy to be shaken away and us awake in a sudden earthquake, or eclipsed in an instant by a friendly shout, or a remembered tune wafting from a nearby cafe, re-encoding through the eardrum and intoxicating the brain, or in stumbling on a pavement crack while lost in speculation, just catching oneself before the oncoming traffic, head tumbling down from the clouds to know again how slippery the concrete becomes under driving rain. It doesn't matter how the numbers do or don't add up; it is still the biggest Game of Marbles on Earth, using the smallest marbles in the Universe! When "science" knows about the Nature of TIME then all the current theories can be put into perspective and discarded. The answer to string theorist's problems is obviously not mundane quantum computing, been there done that any day now, but extra-dimensional quantum computing to get more omph in their analysis. They should be able to dream that up even if only on a string budget. I think a basic problem with communicating science is that you can't start to get a feel for difficult subjects like math and science without spending a lot of time trying to solve the problems at the end of each textbook chapter (or ones set by your teacher). I said 'trying'; you don't need to succeed every time. Kind of, if killer experiments are top trumps. Which is where String Theory falls down big time as they cannot design testable predictions that don't require a convenient quasar or an accelerator that can work at impossible energies (to unravel one of their strings). It is not testable.

Down in Biology we decline to regard non testable ideas as science. But then we tend to be experimenter heavy and theorist light. Physics' problem is too many math inclined theorists with nothing else to do. What they have done with String Theory is build castles in the air, wonderful, exotic, baroque castles but made of nothing and signifying only a massive waste of time and intellectual effort.

What people forget is that mathematics is a language, a highly formal and logical one, but a language nevertheless. Languages can be used to describe fictions, self-consistent, highly compelling fictions (religions, Game of Thrones) but fictions nevertheless. Without scientific experiments to determine which stories are true vs those which are not there is no way to tell the fiction from the truth. Which is why the holometer is so heartening. It is Science.

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